It's the weekend and rather than reading the papers leisurely in bed, eating pancakes with my children, or taking the dog for a walk, I am in a hotel washroom trying to prise my ten-year-old daughter's small feet into a pair of ridiculously strappy high-heel shoes.
"Ow, Mummy, that hurts," she protests loudly, attracting a smug glance from another mother who is viciously sticking curling pins into her silent daughter's head.
Outside, in a vast conference room, chaos is building faster than a layer of St Tropez tan. With just ten minutes to the start of judging, girls as young as three are being coaxed into casual-wear outfits as their mothers - think tight white jeans, manicured nails and enough bling to accessorise a rap star - fight for wall-socket space to plug in hair straighteners.
This is not, as you might imagine, taking place in the US - although there is so much hair spray clouding the air, it's a little hard to tell where we are. What is clear, is that for the contestants here today - 24 girls ranging in age from three to 16 - the location couldn't matter less. The fact that this is a distinctly unglamorous hotel in Ealing, London, is not stopping anybody from pretending it's Vegas. Indeed, for one winner, the next stop is Vegas. This final heat is the last obstacle on her road to a first-prize all-expenses paid trip to the States where she will compete in a ‘sister' pageant and get to meet other like-minded juveniles in false eyelashes and body glitter.
Second and third-place runners-up don't go away empty-handed. They receive a flimsy tiara and a trophy so tacky I defy even the pushiest of mothers to display it with a straight face. The rest of us, who have all forked out a steep £195 (Dh1,140) registration fee, will receive nothing. Except, perhaps, a salutary lesson in how not to spend a day at the weekend.
Welcome to the Cinderella Beauty Pageant - the latest event in a disturbing trend that is growing globally and could be taking place in a three-star hotel somewhere near you. This particular pageant has been running in the US for the last 36 years but was launched in the UK two years ago by a former model, Diana Hare.
Annie and I are here today in the name of research only. We attended a previous heat a few months ago and, to my horror - and Annie's bemusement - she came second, which automatically qualified her for this final round. I later discover however, that the organising committee will allow any parent willing to fork out enough cash to enter their child at this stage. Which totally negates the fact that it's supposed to be a final.
The website is so littered with contradictions and bad grammar it is probably just as well it's being read by an audience more interested in beauty than brain power. It does, however, claim that the competition is a "global scholarship programme" but then fails spectacularly to outline what this actually means. I later realise it's just another badly disguised attempt to dupe us all into believing there is some kind of altruistic motivation to what we're doing. Which is, essentially, parting with a ridiculous sum of money to doll up our daughters in the kind of gaudy garb that no self-respecting woman would be seen dead wearing. Ironically, we are promised on the website, just before being directed to a Pay Pal account, that the emphasis of the pageant is not on physical beauty but rather "seeking to promote the beautiful inner person that should reside in everyone - without the designer dresses and diamonds."
Back in Ealing it's clear this message is not getting through. Every little girl here has at least three suitcases (pink, and on wheels, naturally) stuffed with outfits, hair accessories, shoes and jewellery. Either none of these mothers can read or they know the real score. And, as I watch my daughter unpack her one bag, while bravely facing off incredulous stares from the others, I worry - and not for the first time - about the ethics of what I'm asking her to do. Because if anybody in this room here today is bothered about inner self-development I'll eat my long-lash mascara.
Annie is competing in the ‘Miss' UK Cinderella category for girls aged six to ten. There are three other categories, one for girls aged three to six, and another two for agesten to 13 and then 13 upwards.
Crystals and confidence
Contestants are required to wear a formal-wear dress - preferably a giant, pink frilly number - and to accessorise this with shoes, diamante-studded hair pieces and Swarovski crystals. It's a one-day excursion costing upwards of at least Dh5,800. Especially when you realise that some of the mothers have shipped their daughter's dresses over from the US, and this is before buying a casual-wear outfit, talent outfit and the other necessary accessories to give their little darlings any hope of doing well.
I've had a team talk with Annie and we've agreed that while it's important she isn't shown up during the pageant, she'll be wearing a borrowed dress, clothes cobbled together from her own wardrobe, and a tiara from our dressing-up box. And if she promises not to complain, we'll make a stop at McDonald's on the way home.
The three judges take to their seats and Diana Hare makes a little speech about how the Cinderella Pageant is different from all the others because it focuses on "learning, being yourself and being happy." As I look at Annie, plastered in make-up and waiting nervously in the wings, it occurs to me that all my daughter has learnt this morning is how to apply self-tanning lotion to her legs without it streaking around the ankles. And I know, for a fact, she'd be happier outside in the fresh air, on her bike.
But all around me the other mothers are lapping it up - nodding and agreeing among themselves that it's a wonderful thing they're doing for their daughters. A woman sitting next to me is here to support her nine-year-old granddaughter, Jordan - who's in the same group as Annie - and she turns to me and says: "It gives them confidence, innit?"
I later learn that, last year, Jordan narrowly missed out on winning the coveted aeroplane ticket to the US to compete in the American pageant, so her grandmother forked out £6,000 (Dh35,000) to get her there herself, and brought Mum along too. "How did she do?" I ask. "Well, she had points scored against her for not wearing tights," the grandmother replies. "They're dead strict over there. But she enjoyed it. That's the main thing."
The competition kicks off with casual wear and, I kid you not, I watch three contestants called Tempest, Persia and Diamond sashay up to the stage, one after the other, wiggling their little hips and pouting for the judges. None of them are dressed in anything remotely casual. In this warped world it seems that ‘casual-wear' for a child is an all-in-one spangly jumpsuit with sequins.
One girl, aged nine, and a rival in Annie's category, holds the microphone with casual expertise and tells us all she'd like to be known for "promoting natural beauty around the world." It turns out her mother is the compere of the show, so it must be down to great genetics or great coaching.
Next on is Annie. I can't help feeling a rush of nerves because I desperately don't want her to care about what, I'm beginning to realise, is going to be an inevitable outcome. But there she is. Head held high she walks to the stage. When asked what her favourite television programme is she replies: "Are you smarter than a ten year old?" Ha. That's my girl.
Between each round it's a mad dash to change outfits, curl hair and apply lip gloss. I see one mother coaching her daughter: "When they ask who your biggest influence is, say it's Michelle Mone," to which the girl complains, "But Mum, I've never even heard of her."
Somewhere in the midst of this madness I wonder what these parents are all doing here? I can almost understand why a little girl would want to spend the day glammed up and pretending to be a model (although Annie is hating the attention and can't wait to get the dress off), but why are these parents indulging them in such a shallow obsession?
As the judges retire to decide their verdict it suddenly occurs to me we have been given absolutely no information about their credentials. When I ask Diana, she is defensive: "Well, one of them is a hair-extension specialist - you can pick up her brochure at the door when you leave. And the other woman is a fantastical [sic] fashion person from Russia.'' She never tells me who the man is.
At the start of all this I was genuinely in two minds whether to enter Annie or not. A part of me wanted to give the beauty pageant a chance - to believe the blurb about confidence-building and inner beauty. But what I have witnessed today is a truly disturbing competition that is deeply exploitative. I feel horribly ashamed to have exposed my lovely girl to a world where she hasn't been judged for her ability to do amazing cartwheels, or to sing so sweetly it makes me want to cry. Instead, I've put her in a position where she has been judged on my inability to pin up her hair in a chignon studded with crystals and my reluctance to spend thousands on her outfits. In all essence, she's been scrutinised for what she looks like - not the funny, loveable person she is. And who, in their right mind, would want this for their daughter?
As the trophies are handed out and Annie, who has come last, is left standing alone on the stage looking awkward, I promise myself that, from now on, I will tell her every day how beautiful she is. Then she lifts her head and winks and I know - thank goodness - that she couldn't care less.